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Governing in and through a Pandemic

Posted by Cathy A. Trower and Peter D. Eckel on Oct 27, 2020 11:15:00 AM

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Adapted from article which appeared in AGB, Trusteeship, (28) 5, Sept-Oct 2020

Boards find themselves facing a host of challenges as they work to fulfill their fiduciary roles in the pandemic. But the challenges of the pandemic may provide opportunities to evolve governance in ways beneficial for the long run. We seek to offer some guidance that isn’t simply pandemic specific but might also serve boards and their institutions once through the crisis.

Get the Mind-Set Right and Appreciate Complexity.

 The pandemic is forcing board members to approach their work differently. Central to doing things differently is thinking about them differently. Complex environments mean that cause and effect is unknown and there rarely are right answers. Some board members are nostalgic and stuck in old routines; some seek overly simplistic answers to complex questions; and some resist the demands of governing in this complex environment. Boards must be able to open up discussions, generate ideas, and allow the staff team to lean into emergent practices (rather than rely on best practices of the past). Decisions need to be made, but sensemaking is needed first.

Some suggestions: 

  • Instead of encouraging the board to plunge into operational solutions to issues the organization is facing now, open a dialogue that encompasses the core values the institution wants to preserve. What does your organization value? These values may be programmatic excellence, equity, community, or collaboration.
  • Reconsider the criteria by which the board can decide an issue. How do you evaluate risk against speed, or ease of implementation versus cost, or ROI?
  • What trade-offs do your decisions demand? Consider tradition, history versus change, financial health against community health, shared governance versus decision speed, and the longevity of impact.

Focus on Priorities. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s about the need to focus on top priorities. This should be a wake-up call for boards to be more intentional about the focus of their work. Set goals for each meeting with specific outcomes and keep the agenda tightly tied to those goals. Being intentional about what the board needs to address and why is essential right now. The board should not limit its focus only to the problems at hand.

Elsewhere, we suggest that boards can benefit by thinking of their work spanning three categories: oversight, problem-solving, and strategy. The pandemic has likely pushed most board work into the problem-solving category; however, boards should be sure to also include some discussion of the other two categories. Some questions for reflection:

  • How well is the organization doing and what evidence supports that assessment?
  • What might the future hold and how can we best position the organization for that future?
  • What do we want to be out in front of and what should we wait and see about?
  • What is within our control and how can we leverage those things?

Ensure that Form Follows Function.

Now is not the time to follow routines and rituals that may be comfortable, but do not serve today’s needs. Think about how the structures and formats of meetings and committees might need to change to support the way that your board needs to be working in this environment.


  • Should board meetings be scheduled in a way that is issue-driven instead of calendar-driven? During the pandemic, boards (and particularly board committees) might be better served to be topic-driven with some regularly scheduled meetings to discuss those items on a fixed schedule, such as budgets or audit reports.
  • How can technology be leveraged to support virtual engagement? While many bemoan Zoom, Webex, and other virtual platforms and their shortcomings, they do offer some additional opportunities that might be useful. For example, polls can be used not only for voting but also to frame and seed discussions. Short-answer questions, word clouds, and other tools are either built into these programs or supplemental to them.
  • How could a consent agenda be leveraged as a way to shorten and streamline board meetings and ensure focus on what matters most rather than minutiae?
  • Could breaking large committees into smaller, more nimble task forces enable committees to distribute work and get more done? For example, break committees into two—one focused on immediate challenges and concerns and the other on long-term implications and actions. Another idea is to have subcommittees working on different issues within their purview.
  • How can you structure and prep for board meetings in a way that ensures board members with limited time can engage effectively? Time is too precious to be spent listening to long reports, but the stakes are too high for board members to be unfamiliar with necessary data. Agendas can be created not with topics, but with questions to consider before people enter the (virtual) board room. The polling and answering questionnaires can occur before meetings to get the pulse of the board so that meeting time can be spent unpacking the responses and making decisions.

Have Different Conversations with the Chief Executive.

The pandemic is difficult for all, and it is particularly challenging for organizational leaders. They know where the buck stops. They feel responsible for the short- and long-term success of their organizations. The pandemic is putting tremendous pressure on chief executives to get things right and to do this in an environment in which the information is fleeting and the mileposts changing.

Our advice:

  • Listen carefully to what the chief executive is asking for and saying.
  • Provide time for the chief executive to say what they’re learning.
  • Observe what the chief executive isn’t saying, and what meaning you make of that.
  • Be mindful of their time and attention.
  • Watch for signs of stress and burnout.
  • Pay close attention to evidence of potential blind spots, which we know are more likely to emerge when leaders are stressed or operating in crisis mode. Board members can be helpful in spotting and helping to mitigate their impacts.


The pandemic is creating more than the traditional challenges facing institutions and boards. It is asking boards and institutional leaders to govern differently. As we’ve seen repeatedly, tested solutions don’t often exist in times like these, and even the best questions to ask can be unclear. The pandemic is asking everyone to be flexible, including boards. Thus, it is essential for the chief executive and the board to adopt a learner’s mind set.

Essential to this mindset is the capacity to be reflective. Boards, while being pushed by the pandemic to be responsive, must carve out the time for discussions about what they are doing and how well they are governing. Governance is a thinking person’s game. What are the ways in which a board’s previous strengths will continue to serve it well and what are the ways in which it must adapt with the times? It is always good practice for boards to be intentional, deliberative and reflective about their work (but that does not mean they always are). The pandemic, though, means that they must be. They must ask what’s working? What’s not? Why? And they must stop to ask these questions even when short on time.

Boards also must be wise in understanding that some new approaches will serve them well into the future, but others must be revisited and rethought, if not discarded, once through the pandemic (being careful here not to say “return to normal”). Approaches that work under one circumstance once enculturated can become the new bad habits when context and expectations change.

Much of what is happening in today’s environment is unpredictable and outside our control, but that does not mean that we succumb to fear and immobility, nor does it support rash decision-making. Now, perhaps more than ever, all stakeholders are looking for thoughtful, competent leadership not just from the chief executives but from all quarters—especially boards.

Cathy A. Trower, PhD, serves as a governance consultant and as board chair at RiverWoods Continuing Care Retirement Community. She is also a member of BoardSource’s board of directors and recently completed a term as board chair.

Peter D. Eckel, PhD, serves as senior fellow and director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He codirects the Penn Project on University Governance. He is a trustee at the University of La Verne. 

Topics: Roles and Responsibilities, COVID-19, Virtual Meetings

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